Konrad Gessner, Historiae animalium (Thierbuch), 1606
Published by Johan Lancellot in Heidelberg, 1606
Whether or not Konrad Gessner (1516-1565) slept, we do not know. If you look at his life work, though, it is hard to imagine him doing nothing. After all, he had a mission: to gather and disseminate all the knowledge of his time.
A son of a Zurich-based furrier, Konrad Gessner, was born at a time when natural sciences and the humanities were not yet separated disciplines. The young academic quickly rose from a chair in Greek philology to a professorship in natural sciences in Zurich, where the universal scholar also practised as a municipal physician. Gessner’s publications bear witness to his wide-ranging interests.
Following a financially disastrous list of all books ever printed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, Gessner proceeded fearlessly with his next mega-project: Between 1551 and 1558, the “Historia animalium” was published as a four-volume folio edition – a large encyclopedia that contained everything the 16th century knew about animals. Its structure and systematics are built on Aristotle and Pliny: The four books deal with the viviparous and egg-laying quadrupeds as well as the birds and aquatic animals.
This is where Gessner’s network comes in: For financial reasons, it was difficult for him to travel, and so he asked his colleagues for help. They send not only letters to Zurich, but objects of study as well, including skins. Sitting at his desk at home, Gessner combined zoology and philology. In those days, many ancient names were incomprehensible. Through meticulous research, Gessner was able to connect the ancient names with familiar animals – and, as a rule, modern zoology followed him. For example, he associated the alleged mythical animal hippopotamus with the relevant representations on Roman coins. The encyclopedia also contains stories about mythical creatures, which Gessner marked as obscure but printed all the same. After all, he wanted to quote not only the best informants, but everyone! As for the layout, Gessner had also pressed every button, keeping pace with the times: The texts are illustrated by wonderful engravings, among these Dürer’s legendary rhinoceros. These engravings served as models for other book illustrations for many decades to come and contributed to the fact that the “Historia animalium” created a milestone for a long time.
From 1565 onwards, German versions of the “Historia animalium” were published, such as the one presented here that was released by the doctor and pastor of Winterthur, Conrad Forer, in Heidelberg in 1606, on Gessner’s explicit encouragement. This “condensed” edition covers 172 sheets. For comparison: In the original Latin edition, Gessner dedicated 176 folio pages to the horse alone! The Latin original explicitly addressed the scholarly world. The German version, on the other hand, is intended to offer outright practical benefits, as the title emphasizes. Its reads in translation: “Of the same usability and quality/ both in the meal and kitchen/ as in the medicine and pharmacy; to all physicians/ huntsmen/ cooks/ and even usable to the artistic painters.”
To the publishers, the German “Thierbuch” was much more successful (financially) than its original academic text. News issues and editions were published on a regular basis. When Konrad Gessner died of the plague in 1565, he still had plenty of raw materials for new book projects in his drawer: a history of plants, supplements to both the snakes and the insects. But Gessner always distinguished himself through his tireless gathering of knowledge, paired with strict evaluations according to scientific criteria.
Translated by Annika Backe